Plečnik's students and other Yugoslav architects in Le Corbusier's atelier

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Seven of Plečnik's students worked at the atelier run by the architects Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret at 35 Rue de Sevrès in Paris: Miroslav Oražem, Milan Sever, Hrvoje Brnčić, Marjan Tepina, Jovan Krunić, Edvard Ravnikar and Marko Župančič. In addition, there were the building contractor Fran Tavčar, the civil engineer Janko Bleiweis and the architect Feri Novak. In the studio during the pre-war period, architects from Slovenia, alongside those from France, Switzerland and the USA were more numerous, including up to ten of them, than all those from other parts of the world combined. From Yugoslavia there were seventeen of them altogether. Among Croatian architects, Zvonimir Kavurić, Ernest Weissmann, Juraj Neidhardt, Ksenija Grisogono and Krsto Filipović actively participated in the studio work, while the Serbs were only represented by Milorad Pantović and Branko Petričić, provided that Krunić is added to Plečnik's lot. The Croatian architects were the first to enter the studio, Kavurić arrived in January 1927, followed by Weissman.

At the start of the 1920s, at a time of functionalism emerging in architecture and the Bauhaus movement, and later also during the CIAM congresses, Plečnik's students had expected that Professor Jože Plečnik, lecturing at the newly founded Department of Architecture of the Technical Faculty in Ljubljana, would be teaching them contemporary trends in architecture. Yet they were wrong despite despite him being seen as a pioneer of Modernism due to his early Viennese projects, the Church of the Holy Spirit and Zacherl House.

Plečnik rejected the functionalist architecture, deeming it too rational and cold. Already before, but especially after the visit to the Acropolis in Athens in 1927, he was enthusiastic about classical elements and principles in architecture and began to pass this knowledge on to his students. »What Corbusier knows I know as well, but what I know Corbusier doesn't!« He did not approve of the industrialisation of the construction sector, he was more familiar with crafts and traditional materials. He induced his students to find variant solutions by incessantly and eagerly seeking more practical and more beautiful outcomes through hard work and by not stopping when satisfied with the first solution they came upon. The reason why up to 15 per cent of Plečnik's students left to go work with Corbusier and his cousin in Paris before World War II can be found in the desire to step away from Plečnik's traditional views which were unable to satisfy the students who were yearning for genuine novelties.

The students’ visit to the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts held in Paris in 1925, which Prof Plečnik had renounced, during which Plečnik's students viewed Le Corbusier's building L'Esprit Nouveau, encouraged them to start enquiring soon after graduating about the scholarships offered by the French government in the French capital. Their scholarship recommendation letters were written by Prof Plečnik, demonstrating his openness and broadness. Already in the autumn of 1925, the architect Dušan Grabrijan had left for Paris, but not for Le Corbusier’s studio but to attend the advanced study courses offered at École des Beaux-Arts. In April 1929 and during the 1930/31 academic year, the first Slovenian turned up in Le Corbusier's atelier, the architect Miroslav Oražem. The friendship between Dušan Grabrijan and the architect Juraj Neidhardt from Zagreb, who collaborated with Le Corbusier on his most resonant projects from January 1933 to mid-1935, made it possible for Milan Sever to join the studio in the 1933/34 academic year thanks to Neidhardt's intervention. The good impression made by the work of Plečnik's first two students in the studio acted like some kind of admission pass for other Slovenian students, including those of Plečnik. A three-year break was followed by a genuine Slovenian »invasion« of the atelier, or the beginning of L'epoque slovène as Le Corbusier himself called it. From the end of 1937 to June 1939, the following visitors were simultaneously or sequentially working at the atelier: Tavčar, Bleiweis, Novak as well as Plečnik's followers Brnčić, Tepina, Krunić (for the first time) and Ravnikar. In early December 1939, with the war already underway, Jovan Krunić and Marko Župančič joined the studio, the former for the second time. While Krunić and Župančič drew up plans for military facilities at the studio following the system of the French constructor Jean Prouvé, three of Plečnik's students who had already worked with Le Corbusier, i.e. Sever, Tepina and Ravnikar, attracted attention with their works presented at urban planning and architectural design competitions. Two of them held in 1940 are worth mentioning: the architectural competition for a residential care home for the elderly at Bokalce near Ljubljana in which Tepina was awarded first prize, and the competition for developing and regulating the Medlog settlement near Celje in which Ravnikar was the winner and Tepina was second. The competition for the plan to regulate Ljubljana in 1941 ended with the projects produced by the three above-mentioned architects being purchased.

After World War II came to an end, in the »new times« of reconstructing the destroyed homeland, and following a short interim episode of socialist realism, the modernist concepts of urban planning and architectural design prevailed. Le Corbusier's ideas played an important role in modernising the society. Plečnik's and also other Yugoslav students who had worked with Le Corbusier were appointed to important posts in the administration, state offices and at the universities. Their committed professional, societal, pedagogical and public activity marked architectural events in the late 1940s and in the 1950s in our country. After Prof Edvard Ravnikar took up his position at the Department of Architecture of the Technical Faculty of the University of Ljubljana – thereby becoming one of the key figures in architecture also across all of Yugoslavia – Prof Plečnik took backstage and sank into oblivion; Modernism or the International Style became the dominant style. Prof Ravnikar and his collaborators conceived several architectural projects: from renovations of villages to designs of new cities like Nova Gorica and Novi Beograd, from residential to prestigious public buildings with traces of Le Corbusier's influence to be found in all of them. The list of works is extensive, yet many valuable designs have been lost.

Already in the 1920s, Plečnik's students were easily enthused about Le Corbusier's ideas, yet they were also critical of them and already by the mid-1950s had turned away from them. Slovenian architects did not blindly replicate the examples found in Le Corbusier's atelier, they thoughtfully and independently interpreted them, which is why Le Corbusier's influence is often concealed and also undefinable. Thus, as an example, Ravnikar's refined works are known for their hefty constructions which no doubt demonstrate Le Corbusier's influence, yet the façades are designed in his very own way within the historical and spatial context etc. This is how these architects differed from the numerous other Slovenian (also Yugoslav) architects who grew old along with the ideas of Modernism. The Slovenian architects' connections with their peers such as, for example, E. Weissmann, J. Neidhardt, Gyorgy Kepes, Charlotte Perriand, Willy Valeke, Alfred Roth, J. L. Sert, Kunio Maekawa, Junzo Sakakura, Max Bill, Ejnar Borg, Tage Nielson, Jean Prouvé and others whom they had (in)directly met in Le Corbusier's atelier, were valuable when it came to developing their careers, widening their horizons.

The value of Plečnik's works and his approach to architecture was again reassessed in the international professional arena with the decline of the International Style and the start of postmodernism towards the end of the 1970s. The exhibition at the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1986 holds significant merit for this development. The interest in Ravnikar and other representatives of his generation was not as strong as the interest shown in Plečnik, but today the interest in Ravnikar and his peers is resurging.

Bogo Zupančič, curator